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An approach to managing twin dairy calves

A multiple birth isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration

I used to think that when a dairy cow gave birth to a set of twins, it was a time to celebrate. However, when I talk dairy producers, most frown at the thought. That’s because twin calvings are not only hard on the freshening cow, but can also lead to many of her post-partum problems. Furthermore, twin calves usually don’t do as well as a calf from a single birth. Unfortunately, twinning rates have grown in the last decade from about three to 10 per cent on many dairy farms, so setting a good twinning protocol in place helps deal with them.

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To get a better personal understanding of some of these problems, I asked three producers about their experience in working effectively with twin calves.

The first producer operates a 150-cow dairy and says that his cow herd hasn’t birthed many twins. But in a recent case, his wife had just come back from the morning feedings and said that a second-lactation cow was struggling. When he returned to the calving pen the first calf popped out unassisted, and he only had to remove the placental sac from its head to prevent suffocation. The second calf was backwards and required his intervention to get it safely out of its mother.

Both calves were heifers, but were significantly smaller (85 lbs.) than his other routine single births. Otherwise, they drank milk replacer and grew without many issues in the post-partum weeks. On the other hand, their dam didn’t fare as well. After calving, she had a retained placenta and he treated her for metritis. She took an extra cycle to breed back and has yet to produce the same amount of milk that she did as a first-calf heifer (less than five kilograms) during early lactation.

The second producer operates a 350-cow dairy and has about a four per cent twinning rate. He hasn’t assisted many twin calvings, because like the first producer, the newborn calves are much smaller than normal. His biggest challenge is also similar because these cows have a high rate of retained placentas, plus more ketosis, milk fever and metritis. These dams also need more time to return to active heat cycles and get rebred.

The male-female calf combo

At least 50 per cent of the second producer’s twin births yield the infamous heifer-bull calf pairs, which can that make it difficult to come up with enough good replacement heifers. That’s because nearly all male-female pairs produce an abnormal heifer called a freemartin. She is irreversibly made sterile during gestation because her embryonic membranes fuse with those of the bull fetus and their bloods mix. Therefore, bull hormones then contaminate the blood exchanged between both fetuses, which underlies suppression of the female’s reproductive organs.

Nevertheless, one thing that my friend implements on his farm that helps him deal with twin births is a strong close-up feeding program I designed for his barn. It is a handful of mixed TMR (contains ensiled feed), 15-20 kg of mixed-grass hay, and two to three kg of a 16 per cent dry cow close-up pellet. This complete feed is a palatable no-salt formula with higher levels of chelated trace minerals and vitamin levels, especially vitamin E (+3000 iu/head/d). Last, it contains yeast and probiotics as well as protected choline and niacin to help reduce ketosis.

Unlike these first two producers, the third who has a 150-cow dairy had a much higher twin-calving rate of about 17 per cent during 2017-20. This means that because he calves out about 12-14 cows per month, he deals with one set of twins for every sixth calving. Since the number of close-up dry cows was lower toward late summer during these three years, there were only a couple sets of twins born at this time.

On a positive note, the third producer told me that so far, his twinning cows do not need much assistance during calving, despite in most cases one calf being born head first and the other one backwards. Yet he did observe some post-partum problems like the first two producers; many of his cows had a high incidence of retained placentas and he had to treat a few cows for ketosis. But unlike them, he had no trouble getting cows back to normal active estrus and get in calf.

These are good twinning stories. They confirm many aspects of twinning in dairy cows (assisted births, post-partum problems, and freemartins) and how real producers deal with them in their own way. Such practical means should be very helpful to other producers in overcoming their own double troubles.

About the author

Columnist

Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]

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